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HHS Official On Dealing With Health Crisis In Trump Administration

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

An enduring pattern of Donald Trump's presidency has been his handling of the independent watchdogs tasked with ensuring that the government operates with integrity and transparency. I am talking here about the role of inspector general. The president has repeatedly attacked and repeatedly fired people serving in this role throughout the federal government.

Our next guest is Christi Grimm of the Department of Health and Human Services. And she is one of them. Now, President Trump never actually fired her, but this past spring, after she issued a report detailing shortages of coronavirus test kits and protective equipment like masks, he nominated her successor. That successor has yet to be confirmed. Christi Grimm is still overseeing things at HHS as the principal deputy inspector general. And she joins us now. Christi Grimm, welcome.

CHRISTI GRIMM: Thank you. Happy to be here.

KELLY: So I obviously want to get to the concerns that you were raising this spring and where things stand now with coronavirus cases, unfortunately, raging throughout much of the country. But let's start with your story. Would you tell us about the moment that you realized you were in the crosshairs of the president of the United States?

GRIMM: Well, we had just released a report that summarized hospitals' views of what was happening in treating COVID. And there was a lot of great information in there about shortages with protective equipment, what hospitals were confronting. And we were excited to share that information with policymakers and with Congress, who was looking at, you know, how to respond to the pandemic. So we released the report. And I won't sort of summarize the reaction, but, you know, it did - the reaction did serve to distract from the work on hospital preparedness to the pandemic.

KELLY: The reaction included the president making very clear and publicly that he was annoyed and saying he was going to nominate someone to replace you.

GRIMM: That - well, yes, that was included. Yes.

KELLY: When the president made his displeasure clear, did your bosses at HHS support you?

GRIMM: So I - an inspector general's office is an independent but not untethered arm of the department that they oversee. So that independence does allow us to bring our objective judgment to bear on problems without worrying about whether, you know, those that run the programs are hearing what they want to hear or...

KELLY: Right, right. And I appreciate the whole background. But, basically, did Secretary Azar support you when the president came out swinging?

GRIMM: I'll just raise that to a larger level, that I think the department has absolutely respected our objectivity and independence.

KELLY: I need to press you one more time, and I hear you trying to stay above the fray here. But the fact of the matter is that politics are influencing how this pandemic is unfolding in the country because of the conflicts on - you know, visibly on display between this president and many of his public health and scientific advisers. Would you agree that politics are undermining the response in some way, just based on what it sounds like you are hearing from hospitals and health providers?

GRIMM: Well, I just - I'm not going to give more oxygen to that moment and perceive political interference with inspectors general offices. Really, what I'm, you know, candidly interested in talking about is the work that we continue to do.

KELLY: So let me ask you - big picture - because you will be reading the same headlines I am about the nation's hospital system being overwhelmed; a lot of state and local officials sounding the warning that they are worried about the number of new cases and hospitalizations that they are watching unfold. How worried are you? What is your biggest concern in this moment, in November 2020?

GRIMM: Well, I would say our work does focus a lot on what's happening in nursing homes, what's happening with testing, what's happening in communities. We have work looking at domestic violence. So COVID is front of mind for us, but our top concern is in protecting people. Secondarily, of course, protecting funds. As you know, in response to COVID, Congress authorized historic levels of funding, and approximately $251 billion in COVID-specific funding came to HHS for distribution. So we're very interested in looking at things like the oversight of the Provider Relief Fund, a $175 billion program.

KELLY: And for you, does it complicate your work when you don't know how long you might be doing it, how long you might be in the job?

GRIMM: So I'm in the senior executive service. I'm a career civil servant. And, currently, there are protections for career civil servants.

KELLY: Which sounds like a way of saying you're in the job and you're going to keep doing it (laughter) until someone tells you otherwise.

GRIMM: I remain the principal deputy performing duties of the IG. I'm a career civil servant, so I'm not a political - I can't be fired, necessarily, at will. I've worked under four administrations, Republican and Democrat.

KELLY: Christi Grimm, thank you very much.

GRIMM: Thank you for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Christi Grimm is principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.